January 21. On this day, seventy-eight years ago, 1936, my grandmother—my father’s mother—Nora Lilley Grant died at the age of sixty-one. Umm, that’s merely a year older than I am now. Also on this day, forty-five years ago, 1969, my mother, Birdie Louise Jamison Grant, died, at age forty-seven. One can only imagine what this date signified for my father: the two women he loved the most dying on the same date. He survived my mother nineteen years, so for eighteen anniversaries of this date, he contemplated the strange workings of fate or blind chance.
|Birdie Grant and Lyman Jr.|
When I look at a photograph of my mother, I think about what a pretty woman she was, and at how enchanted my father must have been by her. She was a little thing, just over five tall, with a heart-shaped face, high cheek bones, and brown wavy hair. She had skinny legs and a full bosom. They met in 1943 in Nashville, Tennessee, where my mother had lived her entire life. My mother was twenty-two; my father was thirty-two. If I remember the story correctly, she was working in some low-level function for the Internal Revenue Service when my father, a First Lieutenant, approached her desk to secure a form or something, and then fireworks and music and all such good things. By November, she was pregnant. The only problem was she was married. Ooops.
At some point in 1942 or 1943, my mother had married a man named Frank Luciano, from Altoona, Pennsylvania. How they met or what their relationship was like, we have no idea. My sisters and I didn’t even know our mother had been previously married until after she had died, and the topic was clearly verboten as far as my father was concerned. All we learned from my father was that our mother had met Frank in the early years of the war, as he trained in Nashville. They married. Any conjecture about what he was like just leads us into cultural stereotypes. Tall, dark, and handsome, etc. etc. But we do know that at some point, Birdie Jamison Luciano, traveled north to meet her in-laws, who had immigrated from Italy just before the turn of the century, and discovered that she was not capable of bridging the cultural gulfs between her Southern Scots-Irish heritage and Frank’s first generation Italo-American cultural practices. His parents did not speak English, and they expected her to become Catholic. Fairly soon after their marriage, he shipped out and eventually served in the Pacific Front. Birdie Luciano continued to live with her grandparents and aunt (her mother had died giving birth to her) on Spring Street under where the highway passes through Nashville today.
On Saturday, March 4, 1944, my mother, pregnant with my sister Diane, received the divorce papers, signed by her husband overseas, registered them with Davidson Country, and drove to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, with my father, and in the afternoon married. A divorcee, perhaps all of three hours. The marriage papers in Kentucky state that she was single. My father’s sister, Helen, and her husband, Lowell, whom I called Uncle Weed, drove down from Marion, Illinois, to serve as witnesses and to help celebrate. Birdie fit right in, and Weed especially appreciated what he called my mother’s “Go to Hell Hat.” I am not so sure what that means, but I understand that we Grant men appreciate happy, confident, sexy women.
|The American Family, circa 1955|
Our mother died six weeks short of her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary; however, she and our father always, as a kind of a ruse and perhaps as a sentimental gesture celebrated their anniversary on her birthday in October. The romantic in me wishes to create a story that they first made love on her birthday and that was the anniversary they honored. No matter. For twenty-four or twenty-five years, they lived the American dream. In Nashville, then Birmingham, then Temple, Texas, they purchased brick homes in new neighborhoods. They had children: two daughters eighteen months apart in the forties, then me, the son, named Lyman Jr., in 1953. We all went to good public schools. We all have college degrees; in fact, we all have graduate degrees. My father remained in the reserves after the war, eventually becoming a Lieutenant Colonel, while he worked his way up the administrative ladder in Veterans Administration hospitals. My mother bolstered his ego, saved the money he made, kept a clean and orderly home, created tasty meals, raised the children, and kept the social calendar. I am a little surprised—I don’t know why—but no wonder Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed and Barbara Billingsly seem so familiar to me in reruns. Our family was never wealthy enough for the Country Club, and my father was too penurious to spend his cash on status. But every five years, we bought a new car, and on three-day weekends and for two weeks in the summer, we hit the road for vacations. (Wonder where I got the idea to travel the US?) When our mother wasn’t sewing dresses for my sisters, and a few shirts for me—I remember clearly the patterns laid out on fabrics on the floor as my mother, and later my sisters, scissored the pieces of the dress to be—she played bridge with the other ladies, participated in the neighborhood garden club, and, while I played Little League, kept the concession stand organized.
I have no proof, but I have gut feeling that my mother preferred being a mother to girls than to boys. It just seems that she enjoyed the emotional and social trajectory of girls, the negotiations and trials of becoming a respectable lady in the late fifties and early sixties, sororities in high school, sororities in college, teas, white gloves, spotless reputations, and all that. And while she never missed a baseball game, it occurs to me that she had enough tender Grant male ego to contend with in my father, and that the temptations for me to become a “Hood,” as we called juvenile delinquents in my day, were more troublesome than intriguing. Anyway, at a certain point, a son is supposed to pass into emotional light of the father. The problem was that my father’s love-light shown a bit too harshly as Lyman Jr. began developing into a separate Lyman, and I did my best to step out of his spotlight. Still, I say again, I have no proof for any of this. The fact is that she died when I was fifteen, before the mistakes I was making could be corrected, shown to be careless rough drafts and not final copy.
In my thirties, I had two “awakening” moments concerning my mother. The first was that my mother’s death dramatically changed the direction of my life. My father’s dream for me, and I assume my mother’s, was that I would attend college, play baseball, major in business, participate in ROTC, and when I graduated, my father would pin his old First Lieutenant bars on my shoulders. Lyman Jr., indeed. The season she died, I quit playing baseball and began messing around with writing poems. Three years later, when I went to the University of Texas, I did plan on majoring in business, but I would have nothing to do with ROTC. I pledged and was initiated into a fraternity, but soon quit. As the semesters passed, I continued to drop my business classes and enroll in more literature. I believe that if my mother had not died, she, in her gentle, loving way, would have found the language to guide me, encourage me, entice me, to enlist, remain in the fraternity, and complete degrees in business, perhaps continue to an MBA, maybe law school. At the time, that was certainly a possible future for me. I am conservative enough, in a traditional way, to believe I could have been happy with the future that young man might have had. A lot of men I respect followed that path.
|My Sister, The Queen Bee, with her most recent grandchild|
The second revelation is she and my father lived a love story, a tragic one as it ended with her dying of cancer, but for twenty-four of their twenty-five years together, it was a magical and juicy one. For about twenty years, I thought my mother’s death was, and would always be, the most important event in my life. In high school, I felt that I was marked. I was the kid whose mother had died; I was the kid growing up with just one parent, and one who did not like him very much. In college, it was my secret. In my twenties, it was the thing I told girlfriends. It made me dark and mysterious, the wounded one, the poet. Then in my mid-thirties, in a flash of light kind of revelation, it hit me that my mother’s death was the most important event in her and my father’s lives. It was their destiny, their life map, not mine. I just happen to be a secondary character in their script. Her death was one early event in my long life that I had the opportunity to create. That day, a creature, very large and hungry, left the house
|Birdie Elizabeth Pedraza|
A few other things I remember about this long ago woman. I can see her sitting in the dirt in front of one of our recently purchased house planting plugs of grass to start a lawn. She sits at a table with highball in her hand, smiling, laughing with family. Salty dogs. Tom Collins. She almost steps into the path of bus before my father pulls her back. We sit in the Mercury at the Chuck Wagon in Temple after sixth grade drinking cherry cokes. We discover Whataburger on a trip to Odessa for the state championship in Little League. She makes my favorite meal for a birthday: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and lemon meringue pie. She adds egg noodles to a Thanksgiving menu because I requested it. One night when she catches junior high kids “papering my house” she seems so, so proud. She smiles patiently at me when I drip tomato soup on her shirt while feeding her in bed. She frowns disappointedly when she pulls me out of Travis Junior High the day the police discovered I had broken into a neighbor’s empty house. She types a science fair report for me. She tramps through a creek bed to collect algae for a project I had ignored. She sits on a towel on the white sand of Florida Beach. In the passenger seat of the car, with a map in her lap, she offers directions to my father. She hands us boiled eggs and slices of cheese and sweet pickles from the cooler in the car. She takes a photograph of me when she thinks I look like Huckleberry Finn. We go to a movie theater in Temple to see Cleopatra. She attempts to whip me with one of my father’s belts, but I take it away and say she will never whip me again. She and I watch The Beverly Hillbillies together. She always makes popcorn before Gunsmoke starts. She includes hominy when she makes “breakfast for dinner.” She sings along with Eddy Arnold records. She purchases my first 45 record, Andy Williams sings “In the summer time, when all the trees and leaves are green.” In her final days, she makes sure I know she loves me, something I occasionally forget.
|A couple of Mackdaddy's Ladies|
So forty-five years ago today my mother, Birdie Louise Jamison (Luciano) Grant, died in Scott and White Hospital in Temple, Texas. Nine days ago, Birdie Elisabeth Pedraza, was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Eighteen days ago, we left the embrace of family after an extended stay with my second sister, the Queen Bee, grandmother to Birdie. Sixteen days ago, Knightsmama’s father survived a stroke, and we headed back to Texas. If our trip were progressing as planned, today Knightsmama, the boys, and I would be parked in Southern Florida getting ready to drive out on the Keys. Instead, Knightsmama is spending days and nights at Baylor Institute of Rehabilitation in Dallas helping care for Mackdaddy as he heals and recovers. Meanwhile the boys and I occupy ourselves with math homework, reading, and writing, with the care and feeding of Mackdaddy’s two dogs and nine cattle. Now that he knows how to drive a Big Ass Truck with a Monster attached, Dr. J. is learning how to drive a tractor and move huge hay bales. We are all watching too much television.
|Dr. J. Moving Hay|
As soon as I finish writing this paragraph, Dr. J. and I will wander down to the front pasture and refit a tractor tire that we had repaired yesterday. I’ll return to the house and make lunches, continue with the rounds of washing clothes. At five o’clock, the boys, who say they have grown tired of the road, will fall into the numbing and stupefying arms of a big screen television. I will sit on the porch, watch the sunset, and with a cup of decafe, toast the memory of my mother. I think she would understand that I will be wishing that, instead, I were drinking a salty dog somewhere west of Miami, with Knightsmama, living our own love story.
Soundtrack. Eddy Arnold: "Bouquet of Roses."